It is June 2011, and Nathan Fletcher, a 34-year-old California assemblyman and candidate for mayor of San Diego, is speaking at his campaign kickoff.
“Let me tell you how I got here,” he says to the crowd standing in a conference room at a biotech company in La Jolla. “I grew up in a blue-collar family.
“My dad was a factory worker.
“My mom, who is here today with us, is the inspiration for my desire to serve. She works helping crime victims. She taught me that, while no one gets rich helping those in need, there is a wealth of satisfaction that comes from a life of service.”
To a television reporter, the candidate later offers a few more details.
“My dad was a laborer for International Paper,” he says.
“I was from the factory-working Fletcher family.”
Later in the interview, he says, “I mentioned my dad. He became a police officer, and so I got a great appreciation growing up of hard work.”
He adds, “That’s a difficult job, it’s a hard job, it’s [an] under-appreciated and over-worked thankless job. They see things that people don’t want to see, they deal with problems, we want to act like they don’t exist, and they put their life on the line when they go to work.”
To another TV reporter, Fletcher says, “I grew up in Carson City, Nevada. I was born and raised in Carson City, and loved it.
“I remember as a kid, I remember people walking around with literally six-shooters on their hips.”
“Grew up there as a little guy, and then went to high school in Arkansas.
“All of my family was from Southern California.”
“You know, I was the first one in my family to graduate from college, and my parents worked really hard. You know, in factories, and my dad became a cop to give us a better life.”
That is one version of Fletcher’s family history.
What follows, based on an extensive review of public records and interviews, is another.
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Nathan Fletcher has had at least two father figures.
One, his birth father, Randall Earl Fletcher, was, for a time, a deputy sheriff in Carson City. Later, as a reserve officer, he was fired for lying. The other, Danny Farley, his mother’s second husband, was from Smackover, Arkansas, where he worked at an International Paper factory in nearby Camden. He later pursued law enforcement and contract security work.
The saga of Nathan Fletcher and his mother Sherrie involves a series of men, a nasty custody battle, bankruptcy, divorces and remarriages, children and stepchildren, and the death of a husband. In all, Sherrie has been married four times. Though she has managed to hold her life together, it has not always been easy.
“You know, there’s no part of the American Dream that says everyone gets the same size house” is a frequent Fletcher campaign line. “We don’t even guarantee you equality of ease.”
Nathan’s conflation of the lives and careers of Randy Fletcher and Danny Farley is perhaps understandable, given the domestic turmoil with which he grew up. For San Diego voters, it provides an intriguing hint of the true story of Fletcher and his upbringing in Nevada — where his grandfather served a prominent role in the rough-and-tumble politics of Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas — and Arkansas, where he knew the privation of a working-class Southern lifestyle.
Over the course of his tumultuous relationship with Sherrie, and their subsequent fight over the custody of their young son Nathan, Randy Fletcher quit his deputy sheriff’s job, rejoined the force, then quit again. Then he became a Carson City reserve officer. According to testimony given during the custody battle, Randy Fletcher was fired in June 1979 by a review board for “falsifying a police officer report.”
Though he cared deeply for his son Nathan, Randy had a checkered work history. In addition to his work as a deputy, he was at various times a softball referee, casino security guard, management trainee for a drugstore chain, and an office worker for a pharmaceutical company.
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Nathan Blaine Fletcher was born on the last day of 1976 to Randall Earl Fletcher and his wife, the former Sherrie Ann Morgan, in Carson City, Nevada. The couple had been married in the Southern California city of Riverside, her hometown, on November 21, 1975. Sherrie recalled in an interview last week that she met Randy through her brother, John Morgan, Jr., who was working as a deputy sheriff in Carson City. Sherrie was 18 when they married. She later testified that Randall told her he was 21, when he was actually 25. It was just the first of many untruths, small and large, she said.
“He lies,” Sherrie said of Randy, “and I don’t think he can help it, and there is [sic] several instances during our marriage, and since our marriage, during our separation, and since our divorce, that he has showed me that he is just not, you know, not…I don’t know if…that he is just not always what he appears to be, you know?”
Randy’s marriage to Sherrie lasted less than three years.
Their final divorce decree, granted October 4, 1978, awarded custody of Nathan to Sherrie. Randy, having left the sheriff’s department, was making $714 a month working security at Reno’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. According to court records, he was granted regular visitation rights and ordered to pay $100 in monthly child support.
Sherrie insisted on one important limitation to her son’s visits with her ex-husband.
During testimony at the custody hearing, Sherrie’s lawyer said, “I notice the divorce decree, the original divorce decree, requires that Mr. Fletcher not leave the child at his parents’ [home]. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Sherrie said. “That’s correct.”
“What’s the reason for that?”
“I feel that his parents have a very unstable home life,” Sherrie said. “It’s oftentimes violent, due to the fact that his father, who is a diabetic, doesn’t always eat on time. I have seen him go into insulin reaction and become violent, where it has taken three guys to hold him down.
“It’s an unsettled household. Particularly his mother, who is very involved in church — as is his father and the rest of the family — but she drinks, and it’s, you know, it’s not a well-known fact, but she does drink, and oftentimes she would become just very depressed, and there is a lot of physical — a lot of physical violence that went on in the home between Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, and it was face-scratching and kicking each other and fighting, and knocking each other around.”
“I feel that if Mr. Fletcher had psychiatric help and got his problems straightened out that, you know, he should have his visitation rights, but right now I’m just trying to protect Nathan against him, and against his parents, because I don’t feel that his parents have a fit home for a child or anyone.”
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As a candidate for mayor, Nathan Fletcher speaks often of his “factory worker” roots and the humble surroundings he grew up in. His parents, he notes, didn’t graduate from college.
He doesn’t mention his grandparents.
Verlyn Lowell Fletcher, Randy Fletcher’s father and Nathan’s grandfather, was a fabled Nevada political functionary. A 1937 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he had been chief executive of various cities, including St. Petersburg, Florida, and, later, Eureka, California.
In November 1964, he was abruptly fired as city manager of Las Vegas, a notoriously mobbed-up town that relied chiefly for its income on gambling and various forms of vice, including illicit drugs and prostitution. “The city hall shakeup, long a rumor, apparently stemmed from a no-confidence vote of the city commission,” said a United Press International dispatch of November 28, “but all concerned were close-mouthed about the development.”
The wire service noted: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 1963 crime report listed Las Vegas as having the highest per capita crime rate of any city in the nation.”
Verlyn Fletcher told reporters he had “no idea” why he had been fired. “As an employee of the city I would like to know why,” he was quoted as saying.
The incident quickly faded from national notice and didn’t seem to hurt Fletcher’s reputation in Nevada. The Nevada State Journal in Reno reported on December 13, 1964: “The fact [that] Verlyn L. Fletcher has been hired as ‘temporary acting personnel director’ of Humboldt County hasn’t stopped Carson City speculation he may become the new state personnel director.
“The state post was resigned by Irvin Gartner, who is taking a higher-salaried job in the East.
“Fletcher, who resigned his $22,500 job as Las Vegas city manager to avoid being fired, would be no stranger to Carson City. Before going to Las Vegas he was a state-government consultant, and favorably impressed top officials with his work.”
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As rocky as Sherrie Ann Morgan Fletcher’s marriage had been, her long post-divorce battle with her husband over which of them was most suited to have custody of Nathan was rockier still.
Initially, Sherrie had been granted custody of the boy, with Randy having regular visitation rights.
In early 1979, Randy returned to court and charged that Sherrie and Nathan had disappeared. That April, a judge ordered that custody of the boy be taken away from Sherrie and given to Randy.
According to an April 2, 1979, court filing by Randy’s attorney, Sherrie had left Carson City with Nathan in early January. As a result, Randy was “unable to visit with the minor child and that this lack of visitation with and contact with the minor child is not in the best interest of the minor child.”
Sherrie later testified that, after breaking off a relationship with Carson City sheriff’s deputy Duane Axt, one of Randy’s coworkers, she fled with Nathan to the small town of Smackover, Arkansas on January 9, where she met her second husband Danny Farley the next day. Sherrie told an Arkansas social worker, “I met Danny in January of this year through my sister Barbara Morgan.” They married on January 28. Asked whether the end of the relationship with Axt had anything to do with her leaving Carson City, Sherrie replied, “No, I left because of Nathan, and my main concern was for Nathan, not my relationship with Mr. Axt.”
Asked about the swiftness of the union with Farley, Sherrie said, “We met, you know, we met, and we fell in love, and we wanted to be married. We didn’t see any reason for waiting.” (Reached by phone in Arkansas, Danny Farley said he was too busy to talk, but would later make himself available to discuss his history with Nathan Fletcher. He failed to call back and did not respond to subsequent voicemail messages.)
Farley said in his 1979 testimony that he took an immediate liking to Nathan, who lived with the couple until that March, when Randy finally discovered where Sherrie was, and, armed with the Nevada court’s order, went to retrieve the child.
“I was in the back yard hanging out clothes,” Sherrie testified. “Nathan was just a few feet away from me. Nathan saw his father. I believe he was hiding behind a tree, and he saw his father, and I screamed, and I lunged for Nathan, at which time I fell down.
“Randy picked Nathan up and took off running, at which time I followed them screaming, and there was a car waiting in the middle of the road running, and Randy and Nathan got in the car.
“All this time Nathan was screaming, as well as when they got in the car and drove away.”
The battle was far from over.
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During her June 1979 testimony in her legal challenge to Randy’s custody of Nathan, Sherrie reeled off a litany of lies and half-truths she claimed her ex-husband had told not only to her but to his employers. Randy became a reserve deputy with the Carson City sheriff’s department in July 1976; he later was hired as a full-time deputy, she said. But, Sherrie claimed, to get that job, Randy had not disclosed the fact that he wore a glass eye.
She also alleged that Randy had lied to another prospective employer about graduating from the University of Oregon; he had never received a degree. Randy, she said, told her that his sister was in the Peace Corps, although, as it turned out, he didn’t have a sister.
Sherrie said she’d beseeched Randy again and again about his chronic lying, begging him to see a counselor. “He admitted it was a problem, and it has been a problem. He told me he could stop it any time. I felt differently and asked him to seek professional help.”
Citing yet another instance of untruthfulness, Sherrie said that in November 1977 Randy lied when he quit his job with the sheriff. “The letter of resignation I read stated that he was resigning from the Sheriff’s Office to return to Oregon to finish school,” she testified. That, Sherrie said, was not true. “We did return to Oregon, but we only stayed two months. Neither one of us — or my husband — did not get back in school at that time.
“I took work in a hospital washing dishes,” she recalled. “Randy took work as — in the — it’s not a supermarket. It’s a small, like, 7-Eleven. I don’t know the name of it, and he worked there for a while, and then he got a job working, stocking, a stock boy at a larger supermarket, after just a few weeks.”
A few months later, she said, they returned to Carson City. Randy got his sheriff’s job back. By then, she and Randy, though still married, were no longer living together, and he had rented an apartment with a roommate.
Sherrie and Randy took turns caring for their young son. Then one day in February 1978 Randy and Nathan vanished. She testified: “He left a letter of resignation on his roommate’s coffee table, stating that due to personal problems he was resigning, effective immediately.”
She soon tracked her husband and their son to a coastal town in Northern California. “My brother helped me locate him by — I had an idea that they were in Eureka, and he [her brother] contacted Eureka Police, and they sent back a teletype stating that Randy was in Eureka at a certain address.”
After Sherrie had finished testifying, it was Randy’s turn to give his version of their troubled marriage.
Randy denied most of what his ex-wife had charged. He had not lied to her about his age, he said, and, since he was never asked about his glass eye, he never had had an occasion to lie about it.
“Sheriff Rasner was aware of it,” said Randy. “He never personally asked me.” He added, “I do not feel a police officer needs two good eyes. I would submit my evaluation and record as deputy, in the course of dealing with people and handling their problems, that two good eyes are not a requisite for the position.”
Asked about his ex-wife’s charge that he had gone to Oregon not to return to college — as he told the sheriff’s office — but had instead taken a job there, Randy explained that “because to go back to school in our financial condition, I needed a year of residency prior to taking the final units, which you have to take them, at the University of Oregon, you can’t take them in a community college there. It was expensive to be a nonresident paying that tuition.”
Asked whether he had furnished a résumé to the California city of Tracy that, as Sherrie had charged, falsely claimed he had a college degree, Randy replied: “On their application, they do not specify B.A. They said four years of college. Now, the employment application which was turned in to the city reflected four years of college. The University of Oregon requires 186 quarter hours for graduation. I have 175.”
Asked how he got along with young Nathan, Randy said, “I would describe the relationship as better than most father/son relationships, and it’s a very good relationship, considering his age and the experience he has had in the past. I’m proud of the relationship we have.”
Recalling his return to Carson City after retrieving Nathan from Sherrie in Smackover, he continued: “The first two or three weeks back in Nevada with him, I was not employed. I just — we became reacquainted and did a lot of things together that we had not had time to do.”
Randy went on to defend his parents, Verlyn and Madeline Fletcher, from Sherrie’s allegations that his father was a dangerously violent diabetic and his mother a drunk.
“My father is not a violent individual. He is a controlled diabetic and a patient of Dr. Soong’s,” he testified. “My mother is not a drunk. She does not drink, consume alcohol. She is a religious woman.”
Randy added that if Sherrie “had taken the time to possibly get to know [my mother], she would have realized she has hypoglycemia, which caused her to, at times, stumble.”
Then, describing an unannounced evening visit he had paid to Sherrie’s apartment in February 1978, Randy told the court of an encounter he had had with his wife and Duane Axt, Randy’s fellow deputy sheriff, with whom she was having a relationship.
“She at that time was in bed with Mr. Axt,” Randy testified. “Mr. Axt is not a suitable individual for Nathan to be around. He has in his background been arrested, and [from] the rap sheet we have, [he’d] been arrested three times for indecent exposure, and loitering near the school from the state of California.
“Mr. Axt and I used to be friends. When we had a friendship, he had stated [that] children got in his way. He really didn’t care about children, things of that nature.
“I very seriously felt that Nathan was in jeopardy.”
Shortly after the nighttime encounter with Sherrie and Axt, Randy took Nathan without his mother’s knowledge and took him to Eureka.
Sherrie arrived within a few days.
“I purchased a plane ticket for her from Oakland to Eureka.”
“She came to Eureka the very first part of March 1978, which meant that I had been absent with Nathan in Eureka for approximately four or five days. She called there, said she wanted to talk. [It] was the first time she had said that.
“At this time, she talked. We were together a couple, three days. She said she was willing to try to make things work, you know.” This was, he said, a short-lived reconciliation.
Sherrie’s attorney then asked Randy about being fired by the sheriff’s department in June 1979. “Maybe you could explain to the Court, why it is that you were terminated from the reserves for lying, if you don’t have a problem with lying.”
Randy said, “While I was operating a patrol vehicle, an individual backed into that unit, causing approximately $5 damage and a minor scratch on the right-hand side.
“I was approached afterward regarding that damage, and I did at the moment state that I had no knowledge of it.”
He offered a convoluted explanation of why he had been untruthful. It involved Nathan.
“The reason being, as there had been numerous individuals in the Carson City Sheriff’s Office who had been helpful to me in locating where my son was, in providing advice as to how to go about locating him from various alternatives that were available.
“I felt that through the entire matter of the divorce with Sherrie, and other items related to that, there would probably be enough embarrassment, hassle, caused at the Sheriff’s Office because of Randy Fletcher — I felt that, you know, there was no need to further any hassles or any problems.”
July 20, 1979, a few days after the conclusion of testimony in the custody case, a Carson City judge ruled against Sherrie. She took her case to the Nevada Supreme Court and again met defeat. Was Nathan’s grandfather Verlyn’s vaunted influence in Nevada politics at work?
Nathan would live with Randy in Carson City for the time being. But the boy wouldn’t remain with his father forever. On August 21, 1984, Randy got married to Dottie Lee Sholes in what state records say was a Carson City religious celebration. Life in the Fletcher household was changing. Nathan was eight years old. According to a revised custody agreement filed in court on April 15, 1985, Randy agreed to transfer custody of his son to Sherrie “based upon his representation that Nathan has been a disruptive influence in [the] defendant’s household.”
In a telephone interview last week, Sherrie said she hasn’t seen her ex-husband since Nathan was eight years old. Today she doesn’t know his whereabouts, though she heard he might have moved to Oklahoma. (Randy Fletcher could not be located for comment. )
Sherrie had won a major victory, but there were more hurdles to come.
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Sherrie Ann Morgan was born June 17, 1957, to John Dale Morgan and his wife Mary Theresa Morgan in Riverside, California, a former citrus town that had burgeoned as a distant L.A. suburb.
Sherrie’s father worked for Harvill Manufacturing. Her mother, a Memphis-trained nurse from the small Southern town of Pontotoc, Mississippi, was director of health services at Riverside’s California Baptist College, a small school affiliated with the conservative Southern Baptist Conference.
Nathan Fletcher would one day go to college there. His mother recalled last week that when Nathan told her he wanted to move to California after high school graduation, she and her mother made sure that he attended school in a place and a town that they knew well.
An April 1969 feature in the Baptist college’s student newspaper called Sherrie’s mother “the Florence Nightengale [sic] of CBC” and described her early days at the tiny college, where she began work in the fall of 1961, as an uphill struggle, with few financial resources. “She was greeted with many challenges which she met with conquering zeal. The health department, what there was of it, was poor.”
The Morgans lived in a modest part of the small but rapidly growing city. Sherrie went to La Sierra High; she graduated in 1975. She would marry Randy Fletcher in Riverside that fall and move to Carson City. But if there was happiness, there also was heartache.
In August 1976, Sherrie’s mother Mary filed for divorce against her husband. They had been married 26 years earlier, in Fresno, and in addition to Sherrie had four other children, one of whom, Barbara, was still at home. The divorce became final on March 18, 1977, less than three months after the birth of their grandson Nathan.
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Nathan’s real talent in college was talking. During the period he attended California Baptist University, he was one of seven members, along with his friend David Warren, of the school’s Forensics team, “just a fancy way of saying speech team,” notes the university’s 1996 yearbook. Fletcher was 19.
“The Forensics team is considered a ministry,” Warren was quoted as saying. “We compete with and in front of teams that give speeches that promote no responsiblity and no absolute truth. Our team then gives speeches of unconditional love, and the validity of Jesus Christ in the 20th Century.”
Fletcher had an early professional start in California politics. A July 7, 2000, story in the Ventura County Star — a month after Fletcher’s name appeared on the graduation list of the Baptist college in Riverside — reported that he was Southern California field director for a voter initiative campaign to enact school vouchers, a measure backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper. “We’ve had seven more years of failing public schools,” Fletcher told the paper. “Parents are ready to have the choice of where to send their kids to school.”
By December 2001, Fletcher, at the age of 25, was political director for the California Republican Party, charged with recruiting congressional candidates for the upcoming 2002 mid-year elections. “What we’re looking for is people to give the Republican perspective on the issues and stand with President Bush,” he told Washington’s The Hill newspaper, which added that Fletcher expected “to field GOP candidates in every district.”
Also in 2001, Fletcher was listed as a “volunteer” for the International Republican Institute, chaired by GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Funded largely by the federal government, the institute, along with its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, works with the State Department, military, and CIA in seeking to influence foreign outcomes to the advantage of the United States government.
Besides their foreign policy role, both groups are often employed by their respective party sponsors to groom their most promising candidates for public office. Fletcher’s Assembly biography says he worked for the foundation in East Timor, Cambodia, and Serbia during two missions in 2001 and 2005.
In November 2002, still the party’s political director, Fletcher was back on the campaign trail with Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon. A reporter for the OC Weekly was with him and another Simon advance man at a rally in Santa Monica when Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” came over the loudspeaker. Hearing the lyrics “Everybody must get stoned,” Fletcher snapped, “Dude! Fast-forward through this song right now!”
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On December 11, 2002, exactly two weeks before Christmas, Sherrie Bell of Camden, Arkansas, filed for bankruptcy.
She and her third husband, Sherman Bell, a lieutenant with the Camden Police Department, listed 23 creditors, which included banks, doctors, and the Women’s Crisis Center of Camden. Sherman was slowly dying of lung cancer, Sherrie says, and the medical bills had consumed the couple’s meager savings.
Fourteen hundred miles away in California, her son Nathan was preparing for a job with a United States congressman.
The November 2002 elections in California and the rest of the nation represented a resounding personal victory for President George W. Bush, just over a year after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. As a key GOP operative, Nathan shared in the triumph. In January 2003, he became district director for Republican congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Vietnam War ace.
And then came personal joy. On Valentine’s Day, Friday, February 14, 2003, Nathan proposed to Mindy Tucker, a longtime media aide to George W. Bush. In a call from the White House, the president himself personally blessed the marriage, according to a dispatch that March by Union-Tribune columnist Diane Bell. By then, Mindy was communications director for the National Republican Committee.
A reservist in the U.S. Marines since his college years, Fletcher was called for duty in Iraq shortly after his marriage. He continued to draw a salary from Cunningham’s office as well as his military pay. A counter-intelligence operative, the young Marine found himself in a firefight, for which he received a commendation for valor. Eight months later he was back, safe and sound, behind a desk in Cunningham’s San Diego office.
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Sherrie Bell and her husband Sherman emerged from bankruptcy in the Spring of 2003, their debts discharged by the court in March. They signed documents agreeing to repay the money that the women’s center and others had loaned them.
The case was closed the next month.
Sherman died almost five years later, in October 2007. In 2009, she would marry her fourth.
Meanwhile, her son, the California politician, had volunteered for another Marine reserve tour — this time performing counter-intelligence in the Horn of Africa —and also briefly tried his hand at a small business, selling “bomb and narcotics detection devices,” according to the Union-Tribune’s Bell.
But Nathan’s true calling has always been Republican politics. His recent announcement that he was leaving the party to become an independent has drawn fire from those who claim he’s an opportunist. (Amy Thoma, a spokeswoman for the Fletcher for Mayor campaign, said she would call back regarding a request to interview Nathan Fletcher for this story, but did not. Calls to Fletcher’s campaign and Assembly offices went unreturned.)
Fletcher announced his candidacy for the state Assembly in April 2008, won the June primary, and was easily elected in the safe GOP seat that November.
Four years later, he would launch a campaign to become mayor of San Diego.
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His mother Sherrie has another son to be proud of. Though Nathan doesn’t mention it in his campaign speeches, he has a younger half-brother, Navy Lt. Jonathan Daniel Farley, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2002. Sherrie boasts proudly that he now flies an F/A-18 Hornet, the Navy’s supersonic, twin engine, all-weather, night fighter and attack aircraft.